Spotlight On: Cappel’s

A key shop in Cincinnati remains relevant, even in changing times

By Sam Ujvary |
As is the case with most cities of just about any size, sprinkled throughout Cincinnati are places that ooze nostalgia. Whether they be parks, buildings or smells emitting from shops, memories from long ago are elicited when you stumble upon them. For Queen City residents, Cappel’s is the embodiment of that sentiment. As a Cincinnati native myself, I think of my grandmother taking me on the bus downtown to the Elm Street location, and later in high school, all the shopping we did for school events at the Cheviot shop some 15 years ago. Everything we needed was there. 
It wasn’t until I began with Party & Paper that I realized the mark Cappel’s would make in my mind.
In 1945, this Cincinnati staple began as a supplier of department store fixtures. Customers made frequent attempts to purchase the décor displays created by the Cappel Display Company, and the retail trade was a natural progression from that. Celebrating more than 70 years, Cappel’s original store is located in an old five-story candy factory that quite literally still oozes molasses from the rafters. Cousins Ray and Rich Cappel have taken over ownership and continue to make it a Cincinnati staple. “So often we hear stories of customers who have fond memories of visiting Cappel's as a child, and who now share that experience with their children,” said Ray Cappel. “The uniqueness of the product mix tends to make Cappel's a place that is hard to forget.” I know exactly what he means.
The building at the corner of Elm and Court streets in historic downtown Cincinnati now offers 11,000 square feet of retail space. It started out as one building, but an agreement was eventually worked out to purchase the apartment building next door, which was essentially separated by one thin wall, to create an annex. But they could keep the historic feel intact, and if you look at the building from Court Street, you’re able to see the original alcoves that dazzled the building so long ago. With a shaft elevator and a non-functioning dumbwaiter, this building is the embodiment of when things were much simpler. 
Inside, they’re doing something right. “I don’t care how many Party City (shops) they put in Cincinnati,” said Ray. “The biggest reason why, and why I think people come to us, is that they find a lot of hard-to-find items; they find a lot of items the big guys don’t even carry. We basically dig these items up by traveling to trade shows and trade shows outside of the party industry to find things that we can make our stores unique.”
Unique they are. They understand the importance of offering more than what you might find at other party stores. If you’re just a party store that has paper products and you buy form three or four big manufacturers, you’re going to look like everybody else. “I can’t tell you how many people come in here knowing about us,” Ray added. They want to give off the thought that if you can’t find it at Cappel’s, you wouldn’t know where to find it.
As the store’s buyer, Ray attends many trade shows each year, often visiting those that may not directly be associated with the party or costuming industry. Sure, they’re a Party Club of America member and attend Halloween & Party Expo, but they also head to ASD Las Vegas and find listening to credible vendors as a helpful tool in getting a jump on hot trends. “There’s a lot of things you can find at these shows if you’re looking for them,” he said. And when he’s attending these shows, something he heard long ago from a member of Party & Paper Retailer stuck in his head. “When you go to a trade show and you’re walking down an aisle, is the first thing the end of the aisle? Because if it is, you’re doing an injustice. It means you’re not looking and taking in what people are showing on both sides.”
Competing with big-box stores, grocery stores and large online retailers continues to be a challenge for any shop. But another way Cappel’s sets itself apart from the competition is by providing discounts to schools, churches and charitable organizations. Providing customer service in general is the bread and butter of the shop.
They keep a little bit of everything in this store. They do a little bit of craft, keep a little bit of Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day items out all year, and have aisles of costumes and accessories readily available. “Most holidays have to do with wearables,” said Ray. “At Christmastime, we used to sell a lot of different ornaments and tree trimmings. Now, it’s all geared toward wearables of some type.” Millennials; do they have a Christmas tree? Not many. But if someone in mid-December said they want to go to Santa Con or a holiday party, they’ll go right out and buy a costume. 
And if they need it, Cappel’s has it. The top floors of the old building are rows and rows of boxes of product. Just as the shop reminds you of a much simpler time, so too does their system for locating products. “There’s a system, but it’s not in the computer and it’s not on a POS,” said Ray. “We know where things are. Everything you see here is more ‘you just know where it is.’”
Whether it’s the old building that draws you in; whether it’s the organized chaos and the staff knowing exactly where whatever you may need is located; or whether it’s the fact that your family has been going for years, Cappel’s will always be able to have what you’re looking for. 

Originally posted Tuesday, Jul. 18, 2017

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